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Great Expectations: on predicting the future and aiming high


I’m currently reading, in a dip in and out sort of way because that’s the kind of book it is, a little book called The Prophets of Zoom. This book is really very interesting – it’s a collection of predictions from the 1930s about the future, specifically about how technology will change the world.

Each two page spread offers up one page about the prediction and another page about what actually transpired or, if nothing has happened yet in the area, the latest thinking or current ideas about what will happen. This gives you a great insight into how well these ideas panned out – and some predictions are spookily accurate, although some details are comically wide of the mark.

For instance a prediction titled Office of the Future, imagined office workers dressed in “light overalls, possibly uniform in type in every business house.” This stands in marked contrast to the move towards casual clothing that we see in many offices today. That said, the same prediction did anticipate offices designed around advanced “calculating machines” so they weren’t entirely out of the ballpark.

But the most interesting thing about this book is where these predictions are gathered from. These predictions are not taken from the pages of science fiction books or from journal articles written by and for social scientists and economists, this book of predictions is made up of material originally written for collectable cigarette cards.


Stephen Mitchell and Son Cigarettes of Glasgow distributed these cards during the mid 1930s in order to get in on the craze for card collecting which was seen as a way to build brand loyalty. I don’t know how well this worked for them (after all, I’ve not come across any of their products lately!) but when I stopped for a moment and thought about this I realised that there’s something extraordinary about a cigarette company producing these cards for their customers. They had to make an assumption about the average cigarette smoking man and woman in Glasgow; that they would be interested in some pretty high minded stuff. These cards covered renewable energy, new forms of global travel, working and living environments that wouldn’t exist for decades, if ever. These weren’t aimed at the lowest common denominator, they were aimed at people who were expected to think and care about the future and engage with some pretty deep ideas. Can you imagine a cigarette company producing such cards today?

The main feeling I was left with was admiration for the high expectations that Mitchell and Son had of their customer base. And this got me thinking about the role of expectations in leadership and, in particular, creative leadership – which really is the only kind.

In my role I get to work with lots of people. Some of them would consider themselves creative. Most wouldn’t. It’s part of my job to change that self perception. I need people to get in touch with their inner creative so they can work with me in delivering great customer experiences based around their products – because they know their products and I don’t! There are lots of ways to help people unlock their creativity which I won’t go into here, but the most powerful single tool I know of is simply to expect it of them. I expect it of everyone I work with and more often than not my expectation is rewarded – people love to be creative and they respond positively when someone believes in them.

It’s easy to be lulled into low expectations. We live in an age of sensationalism and a mass media that infantilises us by appealing to our base desires rather than our higher minds. But we can’t afford to have low expectations of people when it comes to the big stuff – the future of society, the ability to show love and compassion, and the ability to be creative in solving new challenges, to name but a few. I’ve found that just expecting more can be enough to release people from their own low expectations. The best part is this – released from the trap of low expectations people are capable of so much and there’s nothing quite as wonderful as watching someone surprise themselves!

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